American Islam, and/or books like it, is an important read. There are only six million Muslims among three hundred million Americans, so most of us don’t have the opportunity to meet American Muslims; fewer still have the opportunity for substantive conversations. Thus, Paul M. Barrett’s profiles (with extensive sociological/historical background) of seven contemporary U.S. Muslims provides an opportunity to get behind cartoonish media depictions.
Before I read the book, a friend posed an interesting question to me: Is it possible to be a good Muslim as well as a good American? My snap answer was “of course.” I took the question as parallel to the challenge many issued during JFK’s candidacy: A good Catholic couldn’t be a good American because his first allegiance would be to the Vatican. I’ve now concluded that the question makes more sense than I thought; the answer is complex; we have a right to be nervous. Barrett’s analysis invites trust because it doesn’t blink at the ugly, but he refuses to allow the few to condemn the many.
A PEW research poll Barrett quotes in his afterword found, contrary to what many believe, that only 8 per cent of America’s six million resident (not necessarily permanent or citizen) Muslims consider it right under any circumstances at all to bomb or kill civilians. The poll doesn’t ask about what those justified circumstances might be, and it’s likely that many of the responders were thinking of certain situations in Lebanon, Palestine, etc. rather than in America. Furthermore, the question was asked in the abstract, and there’s no counting 1) how many might be willing to commit such an act even if they might condone it, or 2) how many might have the resources to do so even if willing. Thus, we might assume that only a tiny handful of the responders would consider something like 9/11 a rightful act. Of course, terrorism is a business of small numbers, and 8 per cent (or whatever per cent of the 8 per cent might actually cause harm) is a large small number; unlike many people, I suspect, I was surprised there would be so many. I always knew it was important that our FBI keep vigilant and keep thwarting bombers, but this reinforces the urgency. However, we mustn’t forget how important it is to recognize that the other 92+ per cent circulate among us peacefully, and comprise but one of a legion of the minorities that will soon become the majority of the American population.
I’ve known (albeit superficially) a few Muslim families, primarily in my roles as teacher and principal, and never found the slightest cause to suspect that they were other than good citizens as well as faithful to their faith. Beyond their devotion to their children’s education and their lack of open hostility to American culture, I admit I had no basis for judging the quality of their citizenship; similarly, beyond the hijab and the occasional reluctance of women to shake hands with non-family men, I had no basis for judging the quality of their religiosity. I was disturbed by the lack of concern on the part of some families that their female children pursue post-high school studies; however, I encountered the same attitude among orthodox Jews, so had no reason to suspect I was encountering anything other than a cultural oddity. I know plenty of Jewish families who pursue education for everyone with fervor. I took it for granted that there are Muslims with similar attitudes. Besides, a university education isn’t a criterion for being a good American.
American Islam, though, brought me face to face with the fact that huge numbers of American Mosques are peopled with devotees of the virulent form of Saudi-based-and-promoted Wahhabism whose doctrines resulted in 9/11. I won’t go into the history of this strain of Islam because Barrett does an excellent job of it, except to say that it’s an early 20th century revival of an 8th century code (much of it outside the Koran), that Saudi oil money has been able to spread world wide, particularly over the last half-century. It promotes all the hideous doctrines personified by Al Quaeda and the Taliban. Since Muslim immigration into the U.S. is constant, every Mosque contains a generous share of foreign born, many of whom bring such ideas with them; and it is a mission of these Wahhabi zealots to conquer all other religions worldwide. Thus, every American Muslim of whatever faith or temperament must struggle with these individuals and their ideas as well as with the assumption widespread among the rest of us that all of them follow the Wahhabi perversions. Still, it’s worth noting that none of the 9/11 hijackers developed any contacts or relationships with American Muslims during their time in the U.S. and that no Americans–naturalized or native born took part in the planning or execution.
Another remarkable thing I learned. Their numbers may be few, but you’re liable to find Muslims anywhere: East, west, midwest, south. Michigan is big. Florida, too. There’s even a generous portion of the book devoted to Islamic events in Yuba City, a small town in Northern California not far from where I grew up. Pakistanis came to the Sacramento Valley as rice growers in the fifties, and we accepted them as part of the landscape, but we never heard about Mosques or any of this other stuff which has grown up since.
And still another remarkable thing. I’d heard about Sufi Islam, knew the famous whirling dervishes were part of this branch of the faith. However, I didn’t know they were such a target of other Muslims because of their philosophy of acceptance and tolerance.
And there’s a bunch of other stuff also. Make your own discoveries. But read this, or something like it. Barrett is a Jew, by the way (a fact he sneaks in very surreptitiously toward the end), but he still got all these people to talk to him at length. Tells you something about the situation right there, doesn’t it?